Menopause should be made a protected characteristic to stop pushing ‘highly skilled and experienced’ women out of work, according to a committee of MPs.
In a report published today by the cross-party Women and Equalities Committee, the MPs call on the government to amend the Equality Act to introduce menopause as a 10th protected characteristic, and to include a duty for employers to provide reasonable adjustments for menopausal staff.
The committee also called on the government to enact section 14 of the Equality Act 2010 to allow employment tribunal claims for “dual discrimination”, for example bring a combined claim for age and sex discrimination. S.14 has laid dormant in the statute books since the Equality Act was introduced 11 years ago.
Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Caroline Nokes, said: “Menopause is inevitable. The steady haemorrhage of talented women from our workforce, however, is not.
“Stigma, shame and dismissive cultures can, and must, be dismantled. It is imperative that we build workplaces – and a society – which not only supports those going through the menopause, but encourages some of the most experienced and skilled workers in our economy to thrive.”
Menopause at work
Other recommendations from the House of Commons committee included appointing a “menopause ambassador” who would help to introduce model workplace policies covering how to request reasonable adjustments and advice on flexible working and sick leave.
Nokes continued: “The omission of menopause as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act is no longer tenable, given that 51% of the population will experience menopause.
“We were shocked to hear that many women have to demonstrate their menopausal symptoms amount to a disability to get redress.
“Our committee is calling on the government to make menopause a protected characteristic in its own right.”
In a survey of more than 2,000 women commissioned by the committee, 67% reported “a loss of confidence” as a result of menopausal symptoms and 70% reported “increased stress”. Only 12% of respondents sought any workplace adjustments, with a quarter citing worries about their employer’s reaction as the reason for not doing so.
Giving evidence to the committee in March, business minister Paul Scully said there were no plans to enact section 14 as the government considered the ability for claimants to bring a claim on more than one ground was sufficient.
Baroness Stedman-Scott, minister for women, argued that enacting s.14 would “introduce unwelcome regulatory complexity and place new costly burdens on business and the public sector”.
In a letter to the committee in May, Stedman-Scott said: “Commencement of this provision cannot be done on a ‘cherry-picking’ basis and would therefore introduce a further 20 combined protected characteristics along with ‘age/sex’,
creating an unhelpful distraction for employers from what they should be doing – complying with the current law with its existing protected characteristics and being aware of the guidance.”
If men went through the menopause, it is almost certain legislation of some kind would have been passed long ago – Martin Williams, Mayo Wynne Baxter
However, the Employers Law Association and the Discrimination Law Association both disagreed, the DLA saying there was no evidence to support the suggestion that s.14 would be complex or costly to enact.
Colin Davidson, head of employment at Edwards Duthie Shamash and co-chair of the DLA, said: “The government must listen to the committee’s proposals and act immediately to make the menopause a protected characteristic to prevent women from suffering harassment and discrimination at work simply for going through a natural part of their lifecycle.
“It is outrageous that in 2022 women are still forced to say that the menopause is tantamount to a disability to have any legal redress against their employers. While I am delighted that the committee has listened to witnesses and is calling on the government to change the law, it is tragic that so many women have had to endure discrimination and this needs to stop now.”
In reaction to the recommendations today, Louise Skinner, employment partner at law firm Morgan Lewis, said introducing menopause as a protected characteristic and enacting s.14 of the Equality Act could have “significant and far-reaching impacts for employers in terms of introducing and adapting policies and procedures, which ultimately would likely improve employee wellbeing, retention and as a result, company performance”.
She added: “It remains to be seen however whether enacting Section 14 is deemed to be mitigation enough for the concerns around adequate protections for those experiencing discrimination.”
Other recommendations made by the Women and Equalities Committee include the government piloting a menopause leave policy at a public sector employer, and publish an evaluation, including proposals for further roll-out.
Martin Williams, partner and head of employment at Mayo Wynne Baxter, said: “As long as the menopause is not recognised alongside other protected characteristics, women will continue to suffer, so it is with thunderous applause that we see MPs calling for the menopause to be a protected characteristic in the Equality Act.”
He added: “If men went through the menopause, it is almost certain legislation of some kind would have been passed long ago. However, it is encouraging to see some recognition that change is required, but what needs to happen now is that this change takes effect.”